Idol Watch's Top 100 Idol Songs of 2021
Looking back at the year's best in idol from Dempagumi.inc, lyrical school, Crossnoesis and many more
Hi! Welcome to the Best of 2021 edition of Idol Watch, a companion newsletter to This Side of Japan that’s all about idols! You can check out previous issues of Idol Watch from this year here: January & February / March & April / May & June / July & August / September & October
The search for eclecticism in idol has not waned, but it’s now in a different and frankly more audacious form. Rather than sticking to one novel subgenre, more and more new acts have decided it’s best to indulge in all of them. The most ambitious of this strategy came from the “super free music unit” Goodday, who released five color-themed EPs, each color presenting them as different musical groups: RED showed their pop-punk side, SKYBLUE collected their synth-pop stuff, PINK dressed them up as retro-pop acts, so and so forth. Acts like situasion and YUP YUP had less organization in their respective releases but worked just as adventurous.
More than ever, idols need more than a unique sound backing them—they need songs. The underground have turned pop: BiSH is now a Kouhaku artist and the rest of WACK hangs out with AKB48. While the last decade of idol was defined by groups claiming outre subgenres to carve out their creative identity, idol groups have started to acknowledge that they can’t survive in this crowded scene with novelty alone. Some have re-shaped their, say, metalcore-inspired music to fit more to pop trends; others have looked to the top of the J-pop charts for the next new sound. Many have begun to go pop, sharpening and properly structuring their music into fleshed-out songs.
While ranking this list, I kept in mind of what worked as songs more than the ideas. Idol groups impress me every day with what they find to adopt as their sound and identity, but I ultimately look for records with a hook, a chorus or a lyric that lingers in my mind way after I turned off the song. Here are the 100 songs by idol groups that stood out to me in 2021.
Here is a Spotify and YouTube playlist of the songs. The YouTube playlist may have alternatives for groups whose listed song wasn’t on their official account. You can also check out this list as a text list here.
1) “Princess Dempa Power! Shine On!” by Dempagumi.inc
The best of Dempagumi.inc’s work has directly referenced a key component to the modern idol narrative: that the process of struggle is an essential part of an idol’s effort to turn nothing into something. The group’s early albums unpacked the concept of idol culture as escapism while dwelling on the struggles experienced by the idols themselves to provide that very outlet of escape for its audience. It proves just as central to their music a decade later in “Princess Dempa Power! Shine On!,” and the single is their most thoughtful, poetic entry yet.
“Princess Dempa Power! Shine On!” unfolds like a musical production in miniature about the road to stardom. The song dedicates its first act to the elation of the new members finally becoming an idol, the flowery arrangements fluffing up the situation as the crowning achievement they fantasize it to be. The group’s tenured names, however, quickly bring them back down to reality—“Your dreams came true? Oh, congratulations,” Nagi Nemoto sarcastically greets the new kids—and the production cues a clear break to confirm what follows is indeed the actual, true start to their journey. As the seniors pile them on with homework, the music never lets up as if to emphasize the endless, exhausting nature of the very process.
Dempagumi’s past classics about idol life deeply indulged in the dark side of their personal lives, but “Princess Dempa Power! Shine On!” strikes a humorous balance between the romanticism and cynicism behind the idol dream. They deliver even their most jaded points with the jauntiness equal to the show-tune production. “Just because your dreams come true, it’s the happy end? / There’s no way!” They shout in the chorus. The struggle is necessary to taste glory and triumph, they suggest. And where an endless run of obstacles once overwhelmed Dempagumi to the point they wanted to quit, they’re now wise enough to acknowledge it as such a given part of life, you’d be ignorant not to expect it.
Dempagumi.inc don’t so much deconstruct the idol narrative in “Princess Dempa Power! Shine On!” than they do re-write it all together. “My Prince Charming will make me happy,” one of the new kids sigh, only for the rest to retort: “That’s a big fat lie!” The group then shatter the poised princess image by promoting instead a me-first go-getter. Sure, she’ll provide joy for a lot of Prince Charmings out there, but she ultimately doesn’t get on the stage and perform for anyone but herself, they seem to sing. While Dempagumi don’t scoff at the passed-down stories as the music and extended metaphor assure, the group is ready to stand as the example of a new one yet to be written.
2) “JIBUNGOTO” by TEAM SHACHI
Discussing the drastic cultural shift brought by the pandemic last year, lyricist Ameko Kodama shared how she’d joke with her fellow songwriters about a potential future where idols sing COVID-specific lyrics like “kissing through masks.” It did not take long after the conversation for the emergence of idol songs directly influenced by the new cultures, behaviors and moods beset by the pandemic, and TEAM SHACHI sets the finest example on that front in “JIBUNGOTO.”
TEAM SHACHI doesn’t skirt around, kicking off with period-specific language to get at exactly what they’re singing about: “Six feet of distance / the guidance of the new normal / I want to see you / I won’t cry.” Their shamelessness in embracing the present establishes its own cool, backed by a maximalist brass pop that silences the rest of the complaints. That said, the group is only doing what pop songs do best: reacting to the current times using the sounds, phrases and sentiments of now. Besides, at its core, underneath the “new normal” slogans, “JIBUNGOTO” aims to aid an universal, evergreen lament of isolation, loneliness and a yearning to reconnect.
3) “Ujira To Omedatsu” by Iginari Tohokusan
Iginari Tohokusan can hardly contain their excitement to finally go out on their first date in “Ujira To Omedatsu,” so much so that, in their teenage parlance, they can literally die. “Let’s dive into a mosh pit and kiss,” they shout in the chorus, and they shake you silly to the point of delirium, screaming “me and you!” in the titular hook with mad persistence. The idols clearly won’t take “no” for an answer. But also I’m charmed by their high from thrill and their own projection of love, enough to want to fulfill any of their wishes listed in their dream itinerary. A summer barbecue? A vacation to Brazil? Yes, anything to see them stay this happy and elated. The riotous pop punk ensures the ride only gets faster and more intense, but man, does Iginari Tohokusan’s enthusiasm to bask in their first-time experiences make you feel so alive.
4) “Gomenne Fingers Crossed” by Nogizaka46
Say what you will of the “Nogizaka meets The Fast and the Furious” pitch behind the music video for “Gomenne Fingers Crossed,” but the street-racing visuals marvelously put to picture the unstoppable propulsion driving the track. From the intro on, the Sakamichi group braces for the inevitable crash of a precious relationship. If their vocals sound unusually cool considering the situation at hand, it’s likely a product of them never exactly residing in the present: the idols spend most of the time retracing their steps for the warning signs—“since when was I broken / so absorbed chasing this desire,” they ponder—while also preemptively looking beyond the aftermath. All their reminiscences only delay the hurt, and the group sing as if they know the futility in them trying to resist fate. The music rushes back in the chorus once they gain clarity, dropping Nogizaka back behind the steering wheel.
5) “Reversal” by RilisReverse
“Reversal” carries remnants of RilisReverse’s past as the group HAMIDASYSTEM, most notably in the gothic, haunting synths but also in their icy vocal delivery. While these materials communicated despair in their previous form, this new iteration now re-purposes them to spark a jolt to the system: the metallic post-punk guitars rile up the nerves while the rhythm section moves with groove. The idols especially sound inspired, ready to rise from their doldrums past and make a new name for themselves: “Let’s break through our limits / and fulfill the tomorrow of revolution,” they declare as the music prepares an electric beat to march on forward.
6) “Anthem” by Goodday
Goodday’s almost exhaustive pile of releases this year represents the best quality found in new idol groups coming out these days. Rather than peg their identity under one novel subgenre, the duo can’t help but try out each and every style under the sun: an urge that scans as adventurousness than indecisiveness, partly thanks to the quality of each end product. That said, “Anthem” might be more commonplace than such an approach would suggest; its gutsy pop punk is matched elsewhere down this list. The song nevertheless satisfies with big pleasures while digging at the core essence of the best kind of pop-punk/idol song. “I don’t know the meaning of love / but let’s play before I get sleepy,” they shout in the chorus with excitement, all that mattering to them is the fun to have now as well as the sweet, heart-fluttering emotions they’re feeling at the moment.
7) “Mizugarasu” by RYUTist
RYUTist brought one of the best songs last year by reminding of all the beauty the world had to offer with blooming music to match. The group once again hits a high mark by now abstracting the idyllic details, with collaborator Ohzora Kimishima warping the picturesque scenery into a glitching, surreal image. Their lyrics point to a similar elusiveness through a series of fragmented, impressionistic metaphors. Despite the alien feel of it all, RYUTist maintain a breeziness as though their world doesn’t resemble a fun-house mirror version of the one we know. “I’m going to squeeze you tight, and we’ll become glass,” they sing in the titular chorus, so sure of their fate in this universe all of their own.
8) “BACK TO THE UNIVERSE” by KOTO
KOTO exited the idol scene this year after performing for a large part of the last decade as a solo act, and what a way to go out. Despite it being her last document as an idol—or precisely because it is—her swan song “BACK TO THE UNIVERSE” finds her maintaining and expanding her self-mythology. As if the pumping synth beat didn’t roar loud enough, she indulges in a rap breakdown to boast her presence as well as a cuteness that remains out of this world. The details of the song hit more poignant after hearing how she left the stage for her last show: after bowing farewell, KOTO took off in a rocket to a star far, far away—“BACK TO THE UNIVERSE,” indeed.
9) “Now Now Ningen” by BEYOOOOONDS
If BEYOOOOONDS are reviving the silliness and absurdity found in the Golden era of Morning Musume, “Now Now Ningen” then stands as their “The Peace!” The Hello! Project rookies channel the enthusiasm for the future driving the latter’s “go to the polls!” messaging to spread optimism in our post-COVID new normal. In classic Hello! Project fashion, they illuminate the significance in the mundane of their day-to-day while dishing earnest takeaways in the form of obnoxiously rapped one-liners. Eventually, they abandon form altogether and shout statements to speak as direct as possible: “Hey, people, are you taking care of yourself,” Utano Sayotoshi firmly calls out in a series of similar inquiries about your well-being. BEYOOOOONDS take advantage of the idol song as a vehicle for the goofy and sincere, maneuvering risky moves to deliver a much needed mental and emotional check in.
10) “GHOST” by Suisei Hoshimachi
“Leaving an impression” has been a fixation for Suisei Hoshimachi in her best works this year, solo or as featured guest. For the former, the virtual idol’s earnest plead to do so in “GHOST” made the biggest mark out of her, uh, stellar album, Still Still Stellar. “Can’t you see me? / Can you hear the sound of my voice,” she calls out in the chorus from the depths. The guitars cry out with equal fervor, but it also echoes the slight hopelessness in her voice: “I keep crying to you for proof / it’s like I’m a ghost.” Though the video shows her fading to dust as she hears nothing back from the void, Hoshimachi sounds far from defeated in this glorious, sentimental rocker.
11) “Hitorigoto Wo Katarukurainara” by STU48
An unexpected group to step on the soapbox, the ship-bound 48 set muse about how bickering does no good while facing trying times. The nautical, triumphant melody of the chorus spins the prose into pop with its morals intact, driving it as one of the best choruses of the year.
12) “MICHI” by Amefurasshi
Amefurasshi loosen up without losing their edge, and their playfulness elevates this dance-pop from its stoic A-side. The silly brass riff sets the mood while their wordplay — what does “so MICHI” mean anyway? — telegraphs how little they are stressed about whether or not this crush will blossom.
13) “Genkai Mugendai Ken%” by Qumali Depart
The proudly klutzy single wraps up an ambitious journey to gain the love of the entire world (according to the concept of their great LP). Qumali Depart appear far from exhausted tackling the bubbly, kitchen-sink beat, ready to celebrate their collective success.
14) “Shijoushugi Ad Truck” by hololive IDOL PROJECT
The maximalist guitar-synth blend of “Shijoshugi Adtruck” was one of the many quality weekly singles from the hololive IDOL PROJECT camp. The lyrics are sprawling as the noodling riff, more concerned about the impenetrability of the baroque phrases and how overwhelming they all flow.
15) “Tsuyogari Rairairai” by Up Up Girls (2)
Up Up Girls (2) put on a stoic face that lives up to the edgy beat, a scrambled choreography of synth squeals and scrapes of piano. But their steely cool only gets in the way of them dropping hints about their true desire: “My toughness, please break it,” they insist, perhaps inside, so they can finally fulfill their wants.
16) “VISITOR” by PIGGS
PIGGS got adventurous expanding their synth-punk, incorporating industrial music for more power, but the tried-and-true, made-for-lives approach of “VISITOR” wins out. “Oh how can we quit / oh without giving it a shot,” they declare over a riling whoa-oh-oh chant, and their lived-in perseverance is contagious.
17) “ANTISUGGEST” by meme tokyo
Meme Tokyo absorb materials from today’s J-pop: zigzagging grunge hip-hop here, a word salad there, spiced with a brooding outlook: “Head shot to today in search of lies taught by machines and strangers.” And they spit back out their own abstracted take that carves out their own place in the scene.
18) “Fantasy” by lyrical school
While the pots-and-pans beat is cluttered enough, lyrical school toy around in “Fantasy” with zany meters and cadences to see what sticks to the grand mess. A rapping exercise than a proper song, maybe, but it’s a thrill to witness the fun unfold firsthand hearing the idols string together an elaborate web of rhymes.
19) “stargaze” by Dopechan
A leading group of the exciting Doping! Records, Dopechan strike a balance between cool and pensive as they lay down acrobatic raps over a lonely synth beat. They lace Auto-Tune croons, spoken-word interludes and scrawled electric-guitar breakdown without tampering the pop or moodiness.
20) “RIGHT NEXT TO YOU” by Sexy Zone
The Johnny’s group effortlessly glides over an equally smooth UKG-indebted beat. The production sets in an icy confidence, flexing its moves without being loud about it. Sexy Zone, too, presumably can hardly contain their feelings, though the group’s nonchalant swagger suggests they know they don’t have to try to get your attention.
21) “moon light” by Crossnoesis
The electro-pop beat bolsters Crossnoesis’s promise of a chorus—“I will fight for you,” they assure, “villains won’t stand a chance”—its searing, steely aura propping them as bold, heroic beings.
22) “Smile Flower” by B.O.L.T.
A shouted promise to the world to bring everyone a big smile, delivered to the tune of a loud, proud pop-punk riff: take it as B.O.L.T.’s grand mission statement.
23) “Bubble” by Old Newspaper
The pop-rap duo ascend to cloud nine as chiptune synths flash, and their croons get laced with Auto-Tune as though it’s a side effect of their dreamy infatuation.
24) “Shinkai” by fishbowl
Fishbowl take flight along a fluttering jumble of piano riffs and glitched synths, embracing opportunity for self-growth over certainty of where this love will go.
25) “BAN” by Sakurazaka46
Sakurazaka46 bring back a few materials in “BAN” that once belonged to their past identity as Keyakizaka, from the scrambled guitar riffs to their rapid stream of consciousness to a dramatic life perspective: “Dear God, what am I doing wrong,” they plead at the end of the chorus. “I want to know at where you draw the line.” But they also openly embrace their once-defining self-seriousness partly as a source of humor: they seem to be in on the obnoxiousness of their behavior this time as they fight back against enforced rules from the higher-ups… placed upon their cell phone overuse. Sakurazaka continue to commit to edginess with zero irony but they also no longer seem so blind to their character, now knowingly wielding it as an asset.
26) “The Same Old Sun” by SIPP
A slight gloominess sets into SIPP and their sturdy pop punk, but company keeps the group from falling completely under.
27) “Loser Girl” by Pure White Canvas
“Loser Girl” explores familiar territory for Pusu, former Vocaloid producer who now leads the band TUYU. “I started to see more and more of what’s around me / tons and tons of rivals,” he writes here, perhaps reminiscing on the pressures felt navigating the crowded Vocaloid scene, before surrendering to defeat over his incompetency. But it’s also a sentiment well familiar with an idol group like Pure White Canvas, holding on to a dream of being somebody on a stage only for reality to discourage them from moving forward: “I wish I could be like that girl / But I couldn’t be like that girl,” they sigh after the pained chorus, and the guitars fire away to offer some form of catharsis.
28) “Zenryoku Silhouette” by Kaiju By Me
The dependable thrust of pop punk reminds Kaiju By Me the only way to shake off listlessness is to keep moving forward.
29) “REM” by NELN
The sleepy-eyed synth-pop sets an atmosphere caught between dream and reality, and NELN remain dazed with their head in the clouds.
30) “SYSTEMATIC” by Sandal Telephone
Sandal Telephone’s once-bubbly funk hardens into sleek New Jack Swing, and the idols settle into a no-bullshit attitude against a once-significant other who keeps playing too hard to get.
31) “LASE” by Dai Dai Dai
The restless hard trance beat inspires Dai Dai Dai to rise to the occasion and voice their ambition and purpose on stage.
32) “Renai Destiny ~Honne Wo Ronjitai~” by Morning Musume ‘21
No matter how much Morning Musume perfect their performance and personality, the idols continue in this powerful album cut to explore what else about them that they can improve. The process doesn’t get any easier for them as clashing emotions remain hard to untangle and articulate, and the pummeling rock music communicates the restlessness brewing inside of them. After all the trouble, however, their moment of clarity leaves a seismic impact: “Let’s do everything / give them everything,” they shout in the chorus with conviction as if they haven’t done so for the past 20-plus years. “I don’t want to run away / in the middle of it all / I can’t end like this.”
33) “Sweet Second Date” by Rirunede
Cute jazz-pop expresses the fluttering heart of Rirunede, impatient to set up a second date and meet their crush again.
34) “Livehouse(e)na” by MAD JAMIE
MAD JAMIE return to wreck the just-reopened stages, aided by the bratty teen spirit of Nirvana.
35) “Aisare Route A or B?” by Angerme
The lavish jazz-pop gives a needed push for a confused Angerme to say “to hell with this” about the “correct” way to live their life.
36) “Vanilla” by FRUN FRIN FRIENDS
“All she does is nag / immature and annoying”: FRUN FRIN FRIENDS say this now about a girl all dressed to impress almost in calculation. The duo however eventually realize they’ve become the very fool as they, too, fall under the influence of love. The zipping synth-pop of “Vanilla” fittingly begins to speed up and fumble over its own steps as the two catch themselves changing their looks and behavior to lure their crush. “So foolish, I can’t help but laugh,” they note with self-awareness, inviting us to also enjoy the cosmic joke.
37) “Shake it! Shake it!!!!!!!” by buGG
BuGG supply the exclamatory riffs and fills while singing hooks about making the best of the here and now, all coming together as an anthem emblematic for both idol songs and pop punk.
38) “LOVE” by BiS
More than riffs or off-the-cuff production, BiS proves its pop-punk zeal in “LOVE” through the chorus, in which the four wear their hearts proudly on their sleeve: “I want love! / I’ve been looking for it for years / Gimme!”
39) “Re Enter” by Pupa!!
The self-proclaimed “pupa idols for everyone to raise” dream to grab success to the tune of starry, wide-eyed EDM.
40) “MORE!” by POMERO
While POMERO appear ever so cool in “MORE!,” their voices slick and poised as the funk beat, the idols ironically sing about failing to keep their composure.
41) “Oishii Mono Fan Club” by Niji No Conquistador
Niji No Conquistador’s ode to every delicious dish on Earth spoils so much with hooks, it’s a surprise the record isn’t a tie-up for any particular client in the food industry. The group are so eager about sharing their love, they forego traditional structure and singing to get their point across: the idols dramatically pause the track at one point to ask the waiter for a refill of rice, and the second verse finds them just shouting and blabbering about how much they love to eat. It’s an obnoxiously fun affair supported by an equally bubbly funk instrumental, which brings up the song’s hidden second agenda: Niji Con nods to the fun in funk—“oshii mono funk love” can be its alternative title—as much as eating and dining.
42) “float” by I to U $CREAMing!!
Like its titular drink, I to U $CREAMing sweeten their maudlin arrangements into starry post-rock to sing about tender love.
43) “Killer Tune” by My Best Friend
Aided by wide-eyed, synth-laced pop rock, My Best Friend promise to stay by your side no matter what happens—just like the precious music playing in your headphones.
44) “Yukai the World” by Lila Gray
Lila Gray are left tongue-tied as sparks start to fly both in their hearts and the restless electro-pop production.
45) “Itsumade Tattemo” by Circle Crusher
Circle Crusher dedicate this sighing pop punk to the one they can’t keep their eyes off of, hoping to one day leave an unforgettable impression.
46) “Full Time Dive” by KAQRIYOTERROR
KAQRIYOTERROR freshen their sound from their usual metal to airy emo-rock for a new impressive look.
47) “the blue dahlia” by situasion
The raw psych-rock in “the blue dahlia” is only one of many styles situasion has adopted and tamed as their own in the past year.
48) “AOAWASE” by CYNHN
A well-worn sound for the group, the graceful, sentimental rock helps shine a positive outlook for CYNHN as a cloud of doubt looms over them.
49) “Noise Cancelling” by mzsrz
While TeddyLoid’s surprisingly muted synth pop suggests msrz to be more willing to play the pop game, the cryptic group ultimately remain their closed-off, teenage selves.
50) “Kimi To Dokokae Ikitai” by HKT48
HKT48 called for the help of JR Kyushu to promote “Kimi To Dokokae Ikitai,” and the resulting music video doubles as a day-in-the-life commercial for the nation’s rail transit company. I wouldn’t blame you if you think the lyrics are a product of commission work: “to the new world / the departure bell rings,” the idols sign off in the chorus, and the rest of the metaphors about a summer’s travel together with a loved one feel glaringly literal. That said, the group’s charming sincerity supersedes all of the strings being pulled, especially as it rides a chorus as wide-eyed and full of hope as this one.
51) Sandaime J SOUL BROTHERS from EXILE TRIBE - “TONIGHT”
52) The Dance for Philosophy - “Double Standard”
53) RAY - “Koharuhi”
54) Iori Noguchi/=LOVE - “Haikei Anatasama”
55) @onefive - “Underground”
56) Nijisanji - “Trial and Error”
57) POMUM - “melt melt”
58) INUWASI - “Lapse”
59) link laze ft. nagomu tamaki - “Shooting game”
60) AiNA THE END - “Watashiwakokoniimasu for Ame”
61) ONE N’ ONLY - “Video Chat”
62) Not Equal Me - “Kurukuru Kakigoori”
63) Otoha Totsuka/The Dance for Philosophy - “Tsukamaete So To Heart”
64) Payrin’s - “IDOLAHOLIC”
65) ASP - “NO REASON”
66) Tsubaki Factory - “Yakusoku Renraku Kinenbi”
67) Owaranaide, Yoru - “Twilight Dancer”
68) NGT48 - “Awesome”
69) akugi ft. Motochika Kasane - “addict”
70) =LOVE - “24/7”
71) MIC RAW RUGA(laboratory) - “Go Forward”
72) Melon Batake a go go - “Kanashiki IDOL”
73) unknown - “envy”
74) HULLABALOO - “Nolka Solka Polka”
75) femme fatale - “Kodou”
76) EMPiRE - “Happy with You”
77) YORUWA KOREKARA - “Take Off”
78) Juice=Juice - “DOWN TOWN”
79) Zenbu Kimi No Seida - “Heavenlyheaven”
80) YUP YUP - “In Our Earth”
81) Ringwanderung - “es”
82) Tokyo Girls’ Style - “Girls Talk”
83) Migma Shelter - “Coro Da Noite”
84) 9DayzGlitchClubTokyo - “Brand new Stimulate”
85) Batten Shojotai - “Watashi, Koi Hajimetatteyo!”
86) ORBIT - “Eclipse”
87) Hinatazaka46 - “Tteka”
88) JO1 - “REAL”
89) predia - “Garasu No Umbrella”
90) Who Is Princess? - “FUN”
91) SZWARC - “Sweet Escape”
92) Kinopo. - “Ranman”
93) Girls2 - “Girls Revolution”
94) Give&Give - “Power Stone”
95) Produce 101 Japan Season 2 - “Let Me Fly”
96) NightOwl - “Yasouuta”
97) Hiragana Kamiyado - “Nijinomukou”
98) Starmarie - “Panopticon”
99) JOY VAN CREW - “Dear Myrai”
100) HEIKIN SUIMIN 8 JIKAN - “Likey”
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